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The Mark Harper interview: 'Voters don’t like it when Conservatives are not united'

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

12 min read

He led opposition to Covid lockdowns from the back benches, but Transport Secretary Mark Harper tells Tali Fraser his Tory colleagues need to get behind their leader. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

“The fantastic advantage and privilege you have as a Member of Parliament is that, if you’ve got criticisms and feedback, you can do it privately. You don’t have to do it in the pages of newspapers,” says Mark Harper.

The Transport Secretary and former chief whip is speaking in the wake of heavy defeats in local elections for the governing party – and yet not quite heavy enough to persuade Tory MPs to mount a coup against Rishi Sunak.

Critics like Suella Braverman are instead agitating for a “change of course” while criticising Sunak’s stewardship of the “national Conservative brand”. Many detect a strategy of ensuring that the Prime Minister – and his supporters – “own” a general election disaster.

Harper – a Sunak loyalist – isn’t about to let the malcontents have a free run at the blame game.

“One of the things on the doorstep is voters don’t like it when Conservatives are not united,” Harper, 54, adds, “and a clear message from us is that if you want people to vote for you, you need to pull together.”

“Politics is a team game, not an individual sport, and people should pull together… It is not helpful when they don’t.”

Harper, however, hasn’t always been so assiduous in supporting the Conservative leadership. Indeed, Sunak’s three predecessors could be forgiven for raising a collective eyebrow.

Theresa May, who dropped him from Cabinet, was repaid by Harper running for leadership after her resignation in 2019 and claiming to be untainted from her government. Boris Johnson saw Harper lead the opposition of his handling of the Covid pandemic and claim he was not “worthy” of being prime minister. Liz Truss, meanwhile, was accused by Harper of moral misjudgements and making plans that were “not up to task”.

In describing his brand of Toryism, Harper rattles through what he calls prime ministers who have believed in “good Conservative principles” like cutting taxes, keeping the size of the state under control and working for a fantastic health and education system.

“That clear thread from Margaret Thatcher through to John Major through to David Cameron through to Rishi Sunak,” Harper lists, missing out May, Johnson and Truss. What about the three in between Cameron and Sunak? Do they not fit into that?

“I did all the prime ministers,” Harper initially insists.

The former chief whip – who, despite the baseball bat, gifted by the US secretary of state for transport Pete Buttigieg at the G7, sitting in the corner of his office, insists he was able to do the job without descending to any physical threats – claims it is accidental: “Sorry, I was just catching all of them. No, I didn’t miss them out on purpose. It was just that there was a big list.”

He heaps praise on Rishi Sunak for being “somebody who is all over the detail and asking the right questions”, although some in his party have claimed that the Prime Minister’s habit of wanting to be aware of every minute detail has meant Downing Street has been inflexible – too slow to respond to events, with a backlog of issues to deal with.

Harper is aware of the myriad issues facing the government. The local elections revealed “there is a problem, clearly”, he says, but “a fixable one”.

The gap between the Tories and Labour in the national equivalent vote share can be closed; voters were staying home rather than switching to Labour, which is an easier fix than if they had crossed sides; and there is a clear policy plan to be sold against a lack of answers from the opposition.

Politics is a team game, not an individual sport

But Harper understands the pain of losing elections, having originally lost his first contest for Forest of Dean in 2001, as well as his wife, Margaret, unsuccessfully standing both in Swansea West and Worcester.

Harper first stood as a candidate for local council in the 90s. He wrote of that time: “There was nothing more irritating than going out and working really, really hard and then having the debate at Westminster kybosh your chances of doing well locally.”

Was that not thought through properly in the run-up to the latest set of local elections?

“That was about parties being united… We have a clear, specific plan that we are delivering on areas that we know the public care about. My message is that every Conservative should get behind the Prime Minister – he is absolutely up for this fight.”

Harper was arguably most outspoken against his own party during the pandemic as chair of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – although he claims to have actually “cut the government an enormous amount of slack”.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Today, the Transport Secretary is surprisingly uncritical of the impact of the continuation of work from home, instead highlighting the need for the rail network to be “more flexible” around people’s post-pandemic behaviour.

“The idea that we’re ever going to go back to the pre-pandemic world is nonsense. People have changed the way they behave. You can like it or not like it, but they have and you have to deal with it – and that requires for us, I think, some changes to how we deliver transport.”

Harper argues it is partly why Sunday needs to be a “normal day of work, where drivers can’t just decide whether they fancy coming to work or not” because the “growth area for train use is leisure”.

During his time in the CRG, Harper’s chief request was for a full cost-benefit analysis of lockdown restrictions.

The failure to adequately balance the risks and costs, Harper says, has made the NHS and its patients suffer: “There are a lot of people during the pandemic, who either we effectively turned away, people that had – at the time – things that were not as serious, or people that were scared away from the health service, who actually it turns out they probably should have got treatment and then caused health problems further down the line. If nothing else, it’s caused that backlog of treatment.”

He adds: “It’s the reason why waiting lists went up so much. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t necessarily have made the same decisions, but I don’t think we properly weighed that up at the time and balanced it.”

It was a balancing of the scales, too, that later led to the decision to axe the northern leg of HS2. At the time, it was reported that the policy change may have been forced upon him, but Harper insists that, not only was he involved in the decision making, but he was on board with the thinking.

“HS2 was consuming a third of the government’s total transport budget, and I think putting all of that money onto effectively one railway line between two, albeit very important cities, was the wrong balance of spending.”

He adds: “I think the Prime Minister is absolutely somebody who’s across the detail and drills into these topics really thoroughly. I saw that last summer when we were making the decision that we made on cancelling the second phase of HS2.”

There were numerous criticisms on not just the decision taking, but the handling of the announcement, made at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester after more than a week of claiming that no decision had been made.

Yet the Transport Secretary claims “the only frustration people had” from the fallout of the cancellation was that the reallocation of the £4.7bn that would have been spent bringing HS2 to Manchester and Leeds will be spread over ten years “because that is the time period the HS2 money was spread over”.

Once upon a time, Harper may have himself been a critic of the decision. In a 2019 Q&A, he wrote: “If we are serious about growing the economy outside London and the South, HS2 is vital to achieving that.”

But the Transport Secretary insists that the decision to reinvest the money set aside for HS2 in the north of England and Midlands represents a return to the Tories’ previous thinking, where “you actually end up going back to George Osborne’s vision of the northern powerhouse”, as building east to west connectivity in the North of England is “part of levelling up”.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

The decision on HS2 has also allowed some flexibility in the development around Euston, the Transport Secretary says, to take it from what was “basically a new train station with some regeneration wrapped around it” to “a development-led scheme that will then lever in enough money to fund a high-speed rail station”.

“Post us making the decision on HS2, I’ve engaged with the local authority and the mayor of London’s team and what we’ve now changed it to is actually going to deliver a better outcome for everybody,” Harper adds, comparing the new model to the development work done around Battersea Power Station that delivered an extension to the Northern Line.

“It will deliver a significant amount of housing, both market housing and affordable and social housing… That’s the scheme.”

Harper says he is “very keen” to look at more development around stations and rail networks for homebuilding, similar to that in the site surrounding London’s King’s Cross and St Pancras.

The Transport Secretary reveals he is merging London and Continental Railways, a government-owned property development company, with the property arm of Network Rail to create a single body focused on development work.

“It’ll be looking at areas around rail stations, looking at the public sector land, working with local authorities in a single point of contact and thinking about how do you regenerate, use that surplus land, to build houses and deliver economic growth.”

He adds: “If you look at St Pancras, you’ve got places full of businesses and economic growth. We’ve done it in some other places, but I think we could do more of it in more places and work more effectively with local authorities with a more streamlined development approach.”

Is Harper finding Nimbys one of the biggest obstacles to infrastructure?

If you dared oppose Ulez, you were accused of wanting to kill children

He won’t make any direct attacks, instead emphasising that his ambitions for development and housebuilding are not “straightforward”, although the pace for progress could be increased.

“We can deliver these things. You could probably deliver a bit more quickly… Anyone who pretends this stuff is easy, isn’t being straight with people. Could we do it faster? Yes, we probably could.”

Across his office walls are a selection of paintings from the government art collection covering each base of his brief: “I said to them, I want transport things – and we have got all the modes covered.” A model train and digger from various transport launches sit on the cabinets.

But he says he has never got into model rail sets himself, or painting buses like Boris. “Airfix is the closest,” the Transport Secretary adds. “I was more into RAF and aircraft, hanging the models from the ceiling.”

Harper is often on a train but back home in the constituency he drives a leased Dacia Duster. When it is up for renewal, he is planning on getting an electric vehicle (EV) for himself (previously Dacia didn’t have EVs, plus it would have been a big expense under recent regulations).

“Up until last spring when we changed the rules, if you were at the end of the line, you had to pick up the whole cost of having the electricity point installed – and where I live, that would have been me. What we’ve now said is the company has to install them and you pick up a share… So if you live where I live in the countryside, actually, that’s a much more sensible thing for being able to have a charging point at home.”

The Transport Secretary has accused Labour of a “war on motorists”, citing a series of policies in place across Wales and London, like the recent 20mph blanket policy and the rollout of Ulez to outer London, as signs of a “very clear anti-motorist view”.

Before the mayoral elections, Harper suggested the mayor should face a reckoning at the polls over the Ulez scheme, saying: “I think voters need to hold him to account.”

Khan has been re-elected, but the Transport Secretary is still determined in opposition to the Ulez expansion, accusing Khan of inappropriate politicking.

“There is literally no evidence it makes any improvement at all to air quality or carbon emissions. Its own impact assessments said those impacts were minor or negligible.

“If you dared oppose it, you were accused of wanting to kill children. That’s what he actually said. He used to say, if you oppose his policies, you want bad air quality – and then I think he inappropriately used specific examples to pretend that somehow you weren’t a good person. I think that’s terrible behaviour.”

He maintains that it is a scheme “about raising taxes” and that it will eventually lead to “rolling out road user charging”, despite Khan ruling it out.

Transport is not a partisan issue, Harper maintains – and “indeed, there are lots of Labour local authorities and mayors that have responded very positively” to recent government funding allocations.

The first in his family to go to university, Harper is “not from a true blue traditional Conservative household”; actually, he says, “I think my parents have voted for everyone over the years.”

“Yes, you have different leaders, and the focus of the party changes from time to time, but ultimately,” Harper says, “the core values don’t change.”

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